WHILE THE INFANTRY RESTED, their task accomplished, Eighth Divisional artillery and engineers had hurried forward to join in the battle of the Argenta Gap. It was a significant move, recalling Foch's triumphant summons in the summer of 1918. "The edifice begins to crack. All the world to the battle." The Wehrmacht had dropped its guard, and staggered dizzily under an avalanche of blows. Fifth Army had struck on a three corps front in Tuscany. Second Polish Corps was in the open. The New Zealanders were across the Senio, the Santerno and the Sillaro. No barrier remained to stem the tide.
Twenty-ninth Panzer Division, the remaining enemy reserve on Eighth Army's front, made a last unavailing bid to block the narrow gut of the Argenta Gap, only to crack under the unremitting assaults of Seventy-Eighth and Fifty-Sixth British Divisions. Tenth German Army began to break up. Many enemy formations dissolved overnight into groups of spent and broken men who sat by the roadsides and waited for the victors to dispose of them. Others retained their cohesiveness and dropped back with teeth bared, dying hard and extracting the full price of victory.
In the van of the drive into the north-west went 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade, serving its sixth. master in six months of almost continuous fighting. (Previous commands had been First Armoured Division, Tenth Indian Division, Fifth Corps, Fifty-Sixth London Division and Second New Zealand Division). On March 8th the Brigade had been given two field regiments, two armoured regiments, sufficient Kangaroos to transport one battalion, and designated as the pursuit group of Second Polish Corps. On April 12th the Gurkhas joined in the hunt. Along the axis of Route 9, the main transverse highway of northern Italy, the Poles drove on Bologna. The right flank was open, and 43rd Brigade, hurried to seize Medicina, an important crossroads through which a counter-attack from the north might be launched. At noon on April 13th, 2/8 Gurkhas, lorried infantry to the outside riding capacity of the tanks of the 14/20th Hussars, swept up to within three miles of the Sillaro river. A network of canals was encountered; although only lightly held by machine-gunners these rhines constituted serious tank obstacles. One after another they were cleared and bridged; but it took the best part of two days to cover the intervening distance to the Sillaro.
The remainder of the Brigade came up, and 2/10 Gurkhas forced the stream in the face of heavy and accurate fire. There was too much German artillery in the neighbourhood to bridge by day; rather than risk counter-attack before support weapons arrived, the Gurkhas withdrew for a few hours to the eastern bank of the river.
At 0400 hours on April 16th 6th 23rd Field Regiment laid down a shoot and 2/10 Gurkhas recrossed the Sillaro. Within an hour the bridgehead was secure and the sappers at work. By noon a squadron of Hussar tanks with 2/6 Gurkhas in Kangaroos had passed through, heading for Medicina five miles away. Brushing aside rearguards and surmounting in one fashion or another the remaining canals, at twilight the tanks and armoured troop carriers swept up to the outskirts of the town. Brigadier Barker had been warned that paratroopers were in garrison and that enemy reinforcements were hurrying to their support. It was the occasion for a quick and unorthodox blow. A troop of tanks led by Major Browne, followed by fifteen Kangaroos bearing "B" Company under Major Greenwood, thrust for the centre of the town, where a large brick church with a Moorish-looking dome stands above the square. Major Browne's tank led the way around the corner of the piazza into the main street.
The next ten minutes gave everyone a good deal to remember. One hundred yards away in the narrow street a self-propelled gun squatted against a wall, its crew working furiously. Fifty yards further back two 88 millimetre guns stuck their long noses out of cover. It was a death trap---neck or nothing. Major Browne charged with his troop at his heels. His cannon gunner beat the German crew to the lay, and pumped two rounds into a point blank target. The self-propelled gun slewed sideways, on fire with its crew strewn over the limbers. Sweeping past, the lap gunner dispersed the crews of the 88 millimetre guns with squirts from his Browning at a range of ten feet. At the end of the street Major Browne swung round the corner to confront a German recovery tank twenty yards away, tugging an upended panzer on to even keel. In the same instant a German cyclist stepped from behind a building with a bazooka and hurtled a bomb at touching distance into Major Browne's tank. Within seconds the self-propelled gun blew up, bringing down several buildings and trapping the remainder of the troop. The Gurkhas had depouched and were racing on the trail; diving through the dust and clambering over the rubble Subedar Raghu Gurung arrived first. He slew the bazooka man as he fitted a second missile. Having dragged Major Browne from his tank badly wounded, his crew armed only with their pistols charged the German panzer.
By now the battle was general. Twenty-two paratroopers, standing at bay in a broken building, died under showers of grenades. In another section of the town the fighting resolved into a foot race, with the Germans outdistancing their pursuers through the streets and into the open countryside. Of forty paratroopers who held the communal school only one elected to fight it out. But in cellars, in alleys, in lofts and even on the rooftops, grim individual grapples ensued as the Gurkhas hunted to the death. Major Greenwood, bare-headed, carrying a stick and wearing a bright red scarf for identification, moved about the streets in a supervisory role. He reached the German recovery tank with its engine still running. He climbed in and tested the wireless. It came through loud and clear. He shut off the wireless, for it was wasting battery.
Eight o'clock struck in the church tower. An ammunition dump went up in a nearby field with a colossal crash. The Gurkhas continued to put paid to desperate enemies in lairs and hideouts. German tanks arrived outside the village but thought better of coming in. Towards dawn a bazooka man stole up to the vehicle park in the piazza and sent up a Hussar tank in flames. When morning broke six guns, two tanks, one hundred shaken prisoners and dead Germans everywhere were all that remained of the war in Medicina.
The tide of battle swept on. That same day, Tenth Indian Division joined the hunt. The breakthrough tended to develop at right angles, with Fifty-Sixth and Seventy-Eighth Divisions advancing to the north, while the Poles and New Zealanders thrust into the west. A quick move brought 13th Corps out of the mountains. 10th Indian Brigade was placed at the disposal of the New Zealanders, and took up a position on the Kiwis' right flank, with instructions to extend the breach and to exert the utmost pressure. On the line of the Sillaro the Durhams crossed the river through the front of 5th New Zealand Brigade, and cleared the west bank. There was a holiday air in the countryside. Wherever the Indians paused they were fed and wined. 4/10 Baluchis and 2/4 Gurkha Rifles passed through with most of the infantry riding on tanks. On April 17th the progress was somewhat slower, and on the line of the Quaderno the New Zealanders were held up by violent resistance. With their world falling paratroopers and panzer grenadiers fought on.
Pushing beyond Medicina, 43rd Brigade reached the line of the Gaiana. Here 2/6 Gurkhas took a nasty crack. In a gallant attempt to sustain the momentum of the pursuit this battalion endeavoured to carry that river by storm. Both flanks were open, and the paratroopers were well dug in. Advancing under intense fire, small parties of the hillmen managed to gain the western bank where bitter hand-to-hand fighting followed. One platoon was reduced to seven men. The havildar of another, although wounded four times, killed five Germans single-handed and brought four survivors out of action. When the leading company had been reduced to forty men, the attempt to cross the river was abandoned.
That night the New Zealanders came up on the right flank of the Gurkhas and again took 43rd Brigade under command. Twenty-four hours later a set piece assault was launched on the Gaiana defences.
A monumental barrage of astonishing accuracy marched forward. One hundred and fifty thousand shells were fired to provide a moving shield of steel. Wasp flamethrowers followed and drenched the river banks in torrents of burning oil. The infantry advanced with 2/8 and 2/10 Gurkhas on the left flank of the Kiwis. It was the end of the road for the arrogant desperadoes of Fourth German Parachute Division. A half mile beyond the river 2/10 Gurkhas mopped up a regimental headquarters, killing a senior officer. 2/8 Gurkhas cut down mortar squads while they still served their weapons. Across open country the pursuit veered into the north towards the Idice, the last water barrier before the Po.
On the right of the New Zealanders, the remainder of Tenth Division now came into the picture. On the night of April 19th, 20th Brigade forced the Quaderno and took over the running from 10th Brigade. With 1/2 Punjabis on the right and 2/3 Gurkhas on the opposite flank, the Indians pressed ahead, mopping up scattered pockets of the enemy. On the afternoon of April 20th, advanced patrols reached the Idice , to be confronted with floodbanks thirty feet high, and to find the near bank covered by a wide irrigation ditch at the bottom of the slope. The position was held in force; and for the last time Tenth Division encountered Germans of the type they knew so well---fanatically brave fighters, skilled in battle, contemptuous of death. Contact had been broken with the New Zealanders, and neither air nor artillery support was on call. 1/2 Punjabis moved forward to storm the defences, and plunged into its bitterest fighting of the war.
With great gallantry two platoons of Dogras of "D" Company reached the far bank. While mopping up a German who had already surrendered shot the only remaining officer. British armour arrived, but the tanks either bogged down in the irrigation ditch, or were destroyed by mines and enemy fire. Two platoons of "B" Company, rushing to the aid of the dwindling garrison on the west bank, lost twenty men in ten minutes. "A" Company was trapped against a belt of wire and pelted by machine-guns. Major Sharma fell dead; Subedar Sainchi Singh, in spite of dangerous wounds, led the company until he dropped unconscious. An Australian, Lieut. Lawrence, headed "B" Company in a desperate bayonet charge which destroyed the remaining enemy posts on the eastern bank. A South African artillery observation officer, Lieut. Spiro, took over command of "A" Company and at the same time continued to direct the fire of his guns. On the far bank the Dogras fought to the last man, ringed by implacable enemies who asked and gave no quarter. Seldom in this war have so many died by the steel; when found the Dogras lay in groups clutching their bloody bayonets. This ferocious fighting marked the end of organized resistance on the front of Thirteenth Corps. When morning broke any Germans who survived were gone. The remainder of 1/2 Punjabis crossed the Idice without opposition. 3/5 Mahrattas and 2/3 Gurkhas with Skinners' Horse in the van, thrust into the north-east. It was a notable day everywhere. The Poles were entering Bologna and on the right the advanced screens of Fifth and Thirteenth Corps had reached the Po.
On this same day (April 21st) Eighth Indian Division moved out of rest joyfully. Each British soldier and each sepoy was gripped by the exciting knowledge that the end was in sight. 19th Brigade led, passed through the Argenta Gap and struck for Ferrara, city of classical swordsmen, and for the main Po crossings. 3/8 Punjabis brushed aside light opposition, and at noon on April 22nd closed up on the outskirts of the town. 6th Lancers and Argylls forged ahead to mop up small groups of infantry and armoured cars which sought to delay the pursuit. 21st Brigade joined the hunt, clearing Ferrara airfield to the south-west of the city. A group of panzers in Ferrara station held back the Mahrattas; rather than resort to house to house fighting it was decided to by-pass centres of resistance. 19th Brigade pinned down the defenders, while 21st Brigade swung to the left. Royal West Kents escorted by Churchill tanks of North Irish Horse reached the Po to the north-west of Ferrara on the afternoon of April 23rd. The Jaipurs followed through, and British and Indian infantry spread out along the high bare banks of the mightiest river in Italy.
Prisoners began to be a problem. Along the Po stragglers of hundreds of units waited disconsolately to be picked up. A motley assembly wearing the insignia of many divisions, they cluttered the roads and overflowed into the fields. Some were shaken and even hysterical, but most sat dumbly with blank faces, their courage and manhood exhausted.
21st Brigade swung sharply to the right behind Ferrara to cut the German line of retreat. Six tanks and a strong force of infantry blocked their advance in factory buildings opposite I Gorghi. As the Jaipurs came hustling forward six enemy tanks emerged from two large storage sheds five hundred yards ahead. Four moved off while the others lumbered towards the Indians. The Jaipurs scattered and went to ground. Above them anti-tank guns and North Irish Horse took over the battle. One panzer went up in flames. Thirty German infantry following the tanks raced in full flight over the open fields under a hail of fire.
Next morning the three miles of industrial suburbs and open fields between Ferrara and the main Po crossings were clear of the enemy. Concurrently 21st Brigade pushed into the city from the south-east. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders searched street after street until they reached the mediæval moated fortress in the centre of the town. Eighty-five prisoners and a number of tanks in working order were taken. Ferrara was relatively undamaged, only the road ramps approaching the city having been bombed. The inhabitants were in good heart, well dressed, well fed, and full of enthusiasm for their liberators. Here for the first time appeared the neo-partisans, who were to become nuisances afterwards---brassarded young men with shiny tommy guns which had never seen the light of day until the enemy was gone. These intrepid patriots roved the streets upon vague errands not unconnected with private scores.
The principal Po bridges at Ponte Lagoscuro were more than 200 yards in length. Their crumpled ironwork lay in the bed of the river. As the first to arrive, Eighth Indian Division inherited the task of constructing crossings. The banks were precipitous, the river swift, and time pressed. The great width put an immediate Bailey bridge out of the picture. (Later, South African sappers built a triple Bailey bridge over 1,000 feet in length on this site---perhaps the longest on record.) It was therefore a case of aerial cable-ways, pontoons or amphibious craft. The latter were nearest at hand. Through the endless lines of traffic pushing up to the river came tank carriers bearing Fantails, DUKWS, amphibious Shermans, and quick-moving storm boats.
April 25th will long be remembered by men of Eighth Indian Division as a day of almost lunatic confusion. Traffic jams blocked every approach to the Po. Bulldozers broke down on the launching ramps. German guns accurately shelled the embarkation sites. Nevertheless the time table was preserved and at 2200 hours two companies of Royal West Kents were waterborne to lead the crossing. They landed against negligible opposition. Before dawn 3/15 Punjabis also were over the river. A squadron of 6th Lancers rafted their armoured cars across and explored the countryside for five miles ahead. On the left, 17th Brigade began a similar crossing soon after midnight, with Royal Fusiliers leading. The amphibious Shermans followed with infantry clinging to the tanks. Support arms followed, and the Indian brigades pushed into the north in full cry.
Everywhere groups of Germans stood along the roadside, shoulders drooping, hands held aloft. A low-flying screen from Desert Air Force searched the countryside ahead of the armoured cars and tanks. By the evening of April 27th patrols from 6th Lancers, 1/5 Gurkhas and 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment had reached the Adige, fifteen miles beyond the Po. This substantial river, even. swifter than the Po, ordinarily would have been regarded as a serious obstacle. But the pace was ever quickening, and the exciting procession of sights and sounds---deliriously happy Italians, girls with flowers and old gentlemen with wine, the vast debris of a broken army everywhere, the long columns of dead-faced enemies trudging into the south---had galvanized all from commander to sepoy with a single urge---to be in at the death. General Russell had ordered his men to hurry, and he also issued a set plan for the crossing of the Adige. The two instructions did not coincide, so the first took precedence. 19th Brigade swarmed over the river on anything that would float---rafts, rowboats, even on battens and spars. When the amphibious tanks arrived sepoys who could not swim took a firm hold and were towed across. Thus Eighth Indian Division passed over its last river in Italy.
Glittering prizes gleamed ahead. Twenty-five miles to the north of the Adige stood the ancient university city of Padua. Beyond, fifteen miles of autostrade stretched to the end of the causeway which ran across the lagoon to Venice. General Russell rose in his stirrups. 19th Brigade group with 6th Lancers was ordered to dash through in lorries. A company of Frontier Force Rifles mounted on amphibious tanks of 7th Hussars raced forward by another road. 68 and 69 Field Companies, working at top speed, threw a bridge across the Adige on the night of April 28th. The armoured screen of 6th Lancers tore into the north, covering fifty-two miles in a morning. But there were other runners, and in inside positions. Fifty-Sixth London Division had scrambled across the Po to the west of Ferrara. Still further west the New Zealanders, ever in the van, were thrusting from the south-west at full speed. With the Kiwis came 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade, hurdling rivers, brushing aside opposition and oblivious of everything except that the end was near.
As the advance neared Padua, transport conditions became incredible. Mile upon mile of vehicles crawled nose to tail. 43rd Brigade turned aside to secure Este, while the Kiwis barged on. In this mad traffic scramble Tenth Indian Division reached the end of the road. After the bitter fighting at the Idice crossing 25th Brigade had passed through 20th Brigade, and had thrust swiftly northwards. By the evening of April 22nd Skinners' Horse was in screen far ahead of King's Own, 3/1 Punjabis and 3/18 Garhwalis. But even armoured cars could make little headway, and Tenth Division found itself in the centre of a vast cone of traffic converging on Ferrara and the Po crossings. Trapped between these tides of transport the Indians were crowded off the roads in the triangle between the Bologna-Ferrara highway and the single road which ran into the north through the Argenta Gap. On the banks of the Reno; at the small muddy village of Malabergo, their advance ceased. Hope revived when Thirteenth Corps, with perhaps more pessimism than the situation warranted, briefed Tenth Division for assault should the enemy stand along the picturesque ridges of Collei Eugenei, high ground studded with castles and monasteries to the south-east of Padua. Before the stricken quarry could reach this covert, the kill came.
Eighth Division likewise found no roadroom beyond the Adige. 21st Brigade never crossed the last river. The privateering expedition of elements of 19th Brigade was abandoned in endless traffic jams around Rovigo. Farthest ahead, the Frontiersmen riding as outside passengers on 7th Husaar tanks were obliged to relinquish their seats to the south of Padua, and to give up the chase. Yet such are the fortunes of war that Eighth Indian Division was vouchsafed the opportunity of adding a postscript to its great record in the Italian campaign. While German emissaries were presenting themselves at Allied headquarters to accept a victor's terms, a squadron of 6th Lancers moved northward on escort duty, through Trento into the Italian Alps. Far up on the road to Austria, partisans brought word of a German division dug in on a rocky hillside under the snow-clad peaks, and determined to fight to the death. The armistice was two days old when Lieutenant Conisbee, with two Sikhs and six Jats, went forward to, investigate. In an eyrie well-nigh as impregnable as Cassino he found what survived of the men who had held Monastery Hill and Snake's Head Ridge---the First German Parachute Division. He was bluntly informed that the German commander would only surrender his force if met by an officer of his own rank. General Russell was far away, and an American general close at hand. Yet it was some consolation to know that Eighth Indian Division was represented by this small patrol at the capitulation of such formidable adversaries.
Of the Indian forces, only 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade remained on the move. Carried forward by the irresistible swoop of the New Zealanders, Brigadier Barker and his men stood a fair chance of seeing the curtain fall from a front row in the stalls. On April 30th the citizens of Padua stood all day in the rain, lining the streets to cheer madly as the fighting vehicles flashed past into the north. But as they arrived, the lorries bearing the crossed kukris were diverted into the main square. In the Paduan suburbs a certain amount of bushwhacking was in progress, as Fascist snipers sought belated martyrdom. Red-scarfed bandoliered youths began to celebrate liberation by summary executions, by shaving women's heads and throwing collaborationists into the river. Padua needed a garrison. The Gurkha Brigade took charge and when Cease Fire blew, the city had regained its staid and civilized tradition.
In the fields, around the village fountains, in the billets of the towns, the sepoys told the civilians, "Guerra è finita". The volatile Italians cheered and cried and celebrated; the Indians were kissed and embraced and wined and fed. They took it all gravely. It had been such a long road that it was a little difficult to realize that the march was over. It was hard to believe that a man might walk upright and openly in the daylight without death seeking him. That night hereafter would be a time for sleep instead of for bitter marches and grim encounters---this too seemed a strange thing. The dim years in Eritrea, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Western Desert and Tunisia blended with the bright yesterday in the common crucible of battle. Now in a trice something had supervened. The job was finished, the vocation of the acolyte withdrawn. There was satisfaction yet some disquiet, in the knowledge that it was all over.
IT W A S NOTED at the beginning of this narrative that the business of war had grown progressively technical, and that the demands upon the private soldier and his officer alike had steadily increased in complexity. Nor had these calls been restricted to the needs of the battlefield. War as waged by the Nazis absorbed the civilian population in the military regime. When German power was broken, it was essential to establish an interregnum during the which the civilian population, displaced, regimented, cowed and starved, could be nursed back from neurosis to health, and persuaded to reshoulder the responsibilities of free peoples. This task of intermediate control and guidance inevitably devolved upon the soldiers.
Nowhere was the problem more acute than in Greece. This unhappy country, after more than twenty-five years of political and social turmoil, had gallantly sprung to arms when the jackal imitated the wolf, and Mussolini staged his unprovoked attack. In the mountains along the Albanian boundary the Italians were easily contained until Hitler struck in aid of his henchman. Then followed the tragic campaign in the spring of 1941 in which inadequate British and Dominion forces, rushed from Western Desert, were driven back against the sea. The Royal Navy intervened to save the remnants, and Greece passed under the conqueror's heel.
The jackboot weighed heavily. Without food to plunder for the fat fraus at home, and without industries to feed the German war machine, Greece possessed no saving grace in Nazi eyes. Its civilian population was treated abominably; only the Poles suffered more. To reckless and desperate men the mountains offered sanctuary. Soon after the occupation, the first guerilla bands began to muster in the less accessible highlands. Daring British officers arrived by parachute to advise, to organize, and to arrange for supplies. Thus the Greek resistance movement was born.
Unfortunately the fatal schism which had tormented Greek political life for decades soon appeared in the camps in the mountains. Greek hated Greek more than Greek hated German. From non-co-operation the guerilla bands passed to active hostility. From hostility the next step was treason. Certain Greek organizations aligned themselves with the German invaders in order to promote their internecine feuds. British liaison officers brought despairing report to Middle East; whence the principal guerilla leaders were flown for conference. No reconciliation was effected. As years passed the rival groups tended to coalesce into two main bodies: ELAS, the left wing partisans, and EDES, the right wing party. This clarification simplified the task of negotiation, and when the defeat of Germany loomed, another effort was made to secure Greek unity. At a conference at Caserta in September, 1944, a measure of success was achieved. Leaders of the respective groups agreed to sink their differences during the period of reconstruction, to accept orders from the Allied High Command during the liberation of Greece, and thereafter to obey the dictates of the provisional government until such time as it was replaced by more representative authority.
By this time ELAS had established a measure of control and even of government in many parts of Greece. Only in the north-west did EDES hold sway. It was obvious that the Caserta resolutions alone were not sufficient to ensure an orderly liberation, nor indeed to prevent civil war. As signs of German withdrawal multiplied, British commando forces, operating in the Ægean islands, began to step up towards the mainland. With the consent of both principal factions British troops were entrusted by Allied High Command with the task of reoccupying Greece. Definitely limited objectives were set: "to eject the enemy, to maintain law and order, to repair communications, to distribute civil relief and to remain strict political neutrals". In mid-October, 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade and 23rd Armoured Brigade landed near Athens, the leading battalion under the command of Lieut.-Colonel Lord Jellicoe. The British troops received a tumultous welcome. On October 19th the British Commander of Land Forces, Greece, Lieut.-General Scobie, the Greek Prime Minister and his Government entered the capital. Three weeks later, Salonika, the principal port of Macedonia, was occupied. This short interim period had been sufficient to allow ELAS to establish a makeshift authority in Macedonia, but the British paratroop advance guard was received with manifestations of friendship.
On October 20th, Fourth Indian Division, at rest in the Perugia area, received orders to proceed to Greece. Brigadier Lovett of 7th Indian Infantry Brigade and his staff officers flew to Greece on the same day. The plan called for Fourth Division to be dispersed in three widely scattered areas. 7th Brigade with Divisional troops were allocated the troublesome cockpits of Macedonia, Thrace and Thessaly, with instructions to keep watch on the borders of Yugo-Slavia and Bulgaria. 11th Brigade would garrison the principal towns of Western Greece and the Ionian islands. 5th Brigade would take over the Ægean area and the Cyclades, and would move into Crete when the enemy garrisons in that island capitulated.
In the second week of November, 7th Brigade and Divisional headquarters arrived at Salonika. On debarkation the troops were welcomed by the civilian population, and the attitude of the local ELAS forces likewise remained friendly. While monarchist and other factions existed in Macedonia, ELAS was preponderant in strength, organization and arms. Civilian administrations were controlled by the ELAS formations; if opposition developed, strong-arm tactics prevailed. In addition, ELAS had adopted from the Germans the odious hostage system. It is well to remember, however, that for a thousand years the history of Macedonia has been characterized by massacre, pillage and the rule of force, and that new-found freedoms were bound to excite rather than to stabilize such a volatile people as the Greeks. Nevertheless, the first week passed pleasantly, with the ELAS commander correct in his attitude and the general public appreciative and co-operative.
The quiet was short-lived. It now seems probable that whereas in the first instance ELAS had been content to wait for a general election and to come to power by constitutional means, the arrival of prominent royalists in the train or the new Government created the suspicion that the King of the Hellenes might turn up at any moment, to rally all anti-communist and anti-socialist elements to his standard. A number of subsidiary developments led to tension. British commanders refused to hand over political prisoners and ELAS offenders against the peace. When EDES and ELAS bands clashed, British troops intervened to restore peace. The first draft of National Guard officers arrived at Divisional Headquarters for training. This body was designed to replace the guerilla forces, and had been recruited as non-partisans. Unfortunately there were no neutrals in Greece, and many recruits had an anti-ELAS background. ELAS felt its predominant position in Macedonia to be challenged, and agitators at once gave tongue. Guerillas occupied the Salonika airfield, refused to hand over local barracks, and cut the country roads, isolating Fourth Division detachments in the hinterland.
These manifestations mirrored similar developments in Athens, where it would appear that a trial of strength had been decided upon. Towards the end of November, a steady infiltration of ELAS forces into the capital began.
11th Brigade arrived at Patras during the third week of November, and commenced to distribute detachments among the outports of the Gulf of Corinth. The situation in Patras differed from that in Salonika, in that the British commandos had landed on the heels of the retreating Germans, and ELAS had had no opportunity to install local governments. In outlying points, however, ELAS forces at once began reprisals against the German-organized "security battalions". Any attempt to protect these wretched impressees was bitterly resented. In Patras the "security battalion" had surrendered to the first British forces to land. Protection of these prisoners afforded an excuse for an aggressive and intimidating attitude upon the part of ELAS. In the course of 11th Brigade's deployment a tragedy occurred. A ferry carrying troops into Missolonghi hit a mine and sank with a loss of seventy lives, in a fairway known to have been clean a short time before. Two days later a landing craft blew up in almost the same spot.
Meanwhile in Athens events rapidly moved towards a crisis. On December 3rd the ELAS members of the Greek Government resigned. A general strike was declared, and police opened fire on demonstrators. British troops were not involved. On the next day ELAS troops attacked British and Greek Naval Headquarters in Piraeus, the port of Athens. General Scobie ordered all ELAS formations to leave the capital by December 7th, under penalty of being declared hostile.
In Italy Fourth and Forty-Sixth British Divisions hurriedly prepared to embark. Ahead came 5th Indian Infantry Brigade, diverted from the Ægean islands. On December 8th Brigadier Saunders-Jacob arrived at Athens. British headquarters had been constricted behind a tiny perimeter in the centre of the city, and was under fire. Beyond the perimeter a number of detachments were isolated. At Piraeus, ELAS forces pressed on Naval Headquarters from all sides.. The immediate need was to clear the harbour area.
The Piraeus peninsula is two miles long, stretching from southwest to north between Faliron Bay and Leonidas Harbour. The northern tip is dominated by Lofos Castella Hill, which rises steeply to a height of three hundred feet. A waterside district of tenements and unpaved streets stretches to the south. The Greek Naval College stands on the western neck of the peninsula. Here 139th British Infantry Brigade covered Naval Headquarters, and here on the night of December 9th 1/4 Essex led the Indian reinforcements ashore.
Two days later 3/10 Baluchis and 1/9 Gurkhas landed under fire. On December 12th, 5th Brigade went into action. In their first advance the Essex severed the neck of the peninsula separating the double harbour. Thereafter day by day the three battalions fought their way through the streets, pushing back the ELAS besiegers and enlarging the perimeter. On December 15th, 1st Field Regiment arrived, but the guns were used sparingly because of shortage of ammunition. 1/9 Gurkhas encountered strong opposition on the slopes of Lofus Castella, where German-built concrete emplacements were manned by obstinate detachments. For political reasons the hillmen were denied the use of their kukris, but in a night attack they overran the area with modest losses.
On December 19th, 5th Brigade was relieved on the southern harbour front, and three days later landed on the quays at Dhrapetsona, in the northern harbour. With tank and air support available fierce but sporadic resistance was beaten down. Rocket firing aircraft and sniping by tank cannon did much to discourage the defenders. From an island in the harbour, 1st Field Regiment, ample ammunition having arrived, averaged 100 rounds per gun per day. By the end of the month the Piraeus dock, power and petrol installations had been recovered, and over one thousand prisoners taken for total Brigade casualties of 166 of all ranks.
The strife in Athens naturally reacted on relations elsewhere. In Macedonia demonstrations and threats became so prevalent that outlying detachments were called in. 7th Brigade established a defended perimeter on the outskirts of Salonika, while a strong force garrisoned the dock area. Impudent and provocative incidents followed. The civilian population were incited to obstruction, and only the high morale and steady patience of the Indian troops prevented clashes. There is reason to believe that coincident with the outbreak in Athens, ELAS ordered their Macedonian commander to attack in Salonika. That officer with great good-sense preferred to wait and see what happened in the capital. When the coup d'état failed, the tension in the north tended to relax.
Similarly, events in Athens resulted in repercussions in the south. On the night of December 3/4th the newly formed National Guard battalions which were to assist British troops in policing western Greece, was surrounded and disarmed by ELAS forces in Patras and Pyrgos. A cordon was established around these centres to prevent British and Indian troops from patrolling the country districts. On December 14th at Krioneri three British officers, including one proceeding on a special mission under a white flag, were seized as hostages and imprisoned. Next morning ELAS forces attacked the small British detachment at this outpost. Naval fire dispersed the half-hearted assault. Considerable tension continued and during the New Year celebrations a British outpost was destroyed in treacherous fashion at Zakhinthos, seven soldiers being killed. The sorely tried British and Indian detachments, enraged by such murderous incidents, walked more lightly, with quicker trigger fingers: a senior officer, exasperated beyond measure by the insolence and double dealing of an ELAS emissary, slammed him into a chair, bounced him around the room, and demonstrated in no uncertain fashion that the time for nonsense was over. Thereafter the belligerence of the ELAS formations in Patras oozed. On January 9th the glad tidings arrived that 11th Brigade might now proceed to mop up the countryside. Two days later Camerons, Gurkhas and Frontier Force Regiment sallied in three columns. After a long night march 2/7 Gurkhas closed at dawn on ELAS positions near the village of Klaus. Fighting ensued in which ELAS sustained 134 casualties for the loss of two Gurkhas killed and two wounded. This sharp lesson cleared the air; four German officers and sixty-nine men, serving under ELAS command, surrendered as soon as it became apparent that the British meant business. On January 25th a British brigade arrived to take over the 11th Brigade concentrated for transfer to Salonika.
On January 15th a truce had been concluded in Athens, by the terms of which ELAS undertook to withdraw from the capital and Salonika and to occupy rural concentration areas. Except for isolated incidents this truce ended the phase of active operations in Greece. Hostages began to return; eleven hundred British nationals were brought in, many showing evidence of abominable ill-treatment. Victims of summary execution were exhumed and given decent burial . The task of Fourth Indian Division ceased to be military and became tutelary. 5th Indian Brigade left Athens for Volos, an important supply centre on the east coast, through which much of the entrepôt trade of the Greek islands passes. In Volos ELAS were in complete control, but the Brigade landed without incident. The port served as a clearing station for the ELAS garrisons of the Ægean which were being withdrawn to a concentration area near Larissa.
5th Brigade remained in Volos for two months. Relations in this hostile outport evolved in characteristic fashion. For the first few days the Greek press---blatant windy inflammatory broadsheets which passed for newspapers---ignored the Indian garrison, and gave themselves over to scurrilous abuse of Mr. Churchill. When this drew no response, alleged atrocity stories from returned ELAS prisoners of war were played up, with flaring wood block headlines and a wealth of gruesome detail. Once again the lethargic British displayed no interest. This apathy was unendurable. Delegations began to pester the Brigade commander with every conceivable complaint, fortified by the most impudent falsehoods. The Greeks talked and talked; British officers listened and listened. Towards the end of January, fatigue set in and wronged parties grew less plentiful. A newly recruited battalion of the National Guard arrived in time to save the situation. In a trice the alleged abominations of Indians and British were forgotten, in a spate of venom directed against the Greek soldiers who sided with law and order.
The induction of National Guard battalions became one of the chief duties of Fourth Indian Division. This sponsorship imposed a dual task---to persuade the National Guardsmen that they must act impartially, and to convince the Macedonian villagers that the new formations must not be regarded as enemies. In a countryside addicted to vendettas, where every man is a politician and raw hate the substance of his conviction, it was difficult to inculcate such a simple and reasonable attitude. Men whose kin have been butchered do not forget overnight, and the arrival of National Guard units in some areas coincided with regrettable reprisals.
Some of the National Guard battalions had received limited battle experience in Athens and were reputably under discipline. Before installing them, however, it was thought best to see that the terms of the truce were being observed. Indian troops were despatched to occupy the principal Macedonian villages and towns. This move introduced Fourth Indian Division to the country people, and served to convince all but the most bigoted ELAS supporters that they had nothing to fear. The reception of these occupying forces varied from sullen hostility to hysterical acclamation, but such is the strength of tolerance and good humour that except for a few cantankerous centres, the hostility quickly dissipated. If a carrier patrol passed through a town where the population lined the street defiantly chanting "Zito KKE", with clenched fists raised, the troops cheerily responded, also with clenched fists raised, and perhaps with bursts of ELAS songs. In light-hearted fashion they were prepared to be all things to all men. The return of hostages in pitiable condition, together with the singularly uninformed comment of some sections of the home press, aroused resentment among British troops. But their anger was directed against ELAS forces, and not against the civilians who through fear and ignorance parroted the farragos upon which they had been fed.
When voluntary recruiting for the National Guard was succeeded by a draft system, the time had arrived to install Greek forces on a wider basis. British liaison officers were attached to each National Guard unit. On induction, British and Indian troops accompanied the Greek detachments, remaining with them for a trial period. In spite of the efforts of politicians, and of a singularly irresponsible section of the Greek press, incidents were fewer than might have been expected. The ways of the National Guard were not British ways, and on occasion they exceeded their authority and reverted to practises indistinguishable from those of ELAS. But fortunately the earlier formations came from Athens, with no hereditary interest in the Macedonian feuds. Before long even the most fear-bound villages began to yield a few friends. Some were informers of the most loathsome type, but others reacted to the hope of peace and liberty. Village secrets began to emerge; that there were arms stored here, and ammunition there; that so-and-so had not delivered up his weapons; that someone else moved from place to place creating trouble. These contacts simplified the task of tidying up. On the whole the National Guard did not betray their mentors, and bit by bit the Indian squads were withdrawn and directed to other duties.
Such duties were manifold, for it was urgently necessary to repair the shattered economy of Macedonia. The roads were in woeful state, and nearly every bridge was blown; in a pastoral land where flock migrations are essential, the first task was to reopen communications. Divisional Sappers and Miners went to work with a will. Ferries were devised and operated by Indian personnel. As Bailey sections arrived, the principal streams were bridged. Under Divisional guards, UNRRA convoys began to move into the hinterland. It became possible to bring in welfare workers and medical supplies. Communications were established with the Bulgarian and Jugo-Slav frontiers, and detachments of the Division moved up to investigate the endless spate of charge and counter-charge concerning boundary violations. An exchange of dispossessed persons with the neighbouring states began. Bit by bit sources of irritation were ironed out. Sections of the Greek press, with a magnificent disregard for the truth, continued to spread any tale which suited their book. Politicians ranted. Some people could not forget. But when the carrier patrol rolled up to the village, the children swarmed about it, for the sepoys usually had sweets in their pockets. The officer sat in the shade with the headman, listened to his troubles, made notes, and proffered advice. When business was over, and the ceremonial glasses of wine had been drunk, sturdy Macedonian wenches came crowding with garlands, and the carrier moved off amid salvos of "Zitos", and sometimes with an embarrassing number of simple presents.
Fear had gone or was going. Security had arrived, or was on the way. Some of the mercurial Greeks felt prosperity to be just around the corner. It was not as simple as that. There were thirty-nine recognized political parties in Greece, and each had its own articles of faith. The Greek nation had been through fire, but had not burned out its dross. There was a limit to what friends could do, and in the long run the Greeks must save themselves. But throughout 1945 British and Indian troops continued to serve the stricken northern provinces, allaying apprehensions, preventing abuses, and steadily restoring normal intercourse. When in January, 1946, the wearers of the Red Eagle gathered at Salonika to take ship for home, it was with the knowledge that they had put the feet of the Greeks in the path which might lead to ordered life thereafter.
Fourth Indian Division, first to arrive, was last to leave the Mediterranean theatre. After the collapse of Germany Eighth Indian Division quickly mustered to transfer to India, as it had been selected for employment against Japan. Tenth Indian Division and 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade were due to follow when a sudden crisis loomed in Trieste. Istria and Venetia Guilia, provinces snatched by Italy from the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian empire after the last war, contained a large Yugo-Slav population. Marshal Tito's valiant troops, having expelled the enemy from their homeland, pursued the Germans to the north and west. When the surrender came, the Yugo-Slavs held Italy to the line of the Izonzo river, and had effected a considerable penetration into Carinthia, the playground province of southern Austria.
It had already been decided in high conclave that these areas should form part of the British zone of occupation. Unfortunately Russian forces which had overrun part of Carinthia at first showed little inclination to hand over. When a big man succeeds, a little man tries. The Second Yugo-Slav Army occupied the Julian Marches up to the Izonzo, reinforced their token force in Carinthia, and stood fast.
More than disputed provinces were at stake---the integrity of inter-Allied agreements and the authority of the Supreme Allied Command. In terse terms the Russians declared their views on Carinthia; the Yugo-Slavs at once took the roads towards home. They were more loath to relinquish Italian territory, and Field-Marshal Alexander was obliged to reinforce his unmistakable declaration with troop movements. 43rd Gurkha Brigade was already covering the bottleneck into Trieste, where the New Zealanders nonchalantly trafficked with the somewhat truculent Yugo-Slavs. Tenth Indian Division and Eighty-Fifth U.S. Division crossed the Izonzo, and moved up to take station along the roads leading to the Tarviso and Caporetto passes through which the three British divisions in Austria were maintained. Fifty-sixth London Division followed, and a strong corps stood ready to reinforce the dictates of the Allied High Command.
Fortunately force was not necessary. The Yugo-Slavs stood their ground but sedulously avoided incidents. There were many opportunities for friction in this double occupation: the common use of crowded roads; different curfews (Yugo-Slav time being two hours ahead), contiguous billeting areas, incessant propaganda in which the Italians participated, an abundance of pretty girls and harsh wines. British commanders refused to allow villages to be searched for Fascists and alleged enemies of the state. British medical officers insisted upon a standard of field hygiene with which the Yugo-Slavs were unfamiliar. At times these irritations prickled, and hot-headed local commanders bluffed. Mortars were mounted to command British airfields. An 88 millimetre gun was trained at point blank range on a park of British tanks in a village piazza. But always good sense prevailed and the spectacle was witnessed of men deployed to thwart each other mounting double guards, chatting over handfuls of cherries, kicking a football together in the village streets, and side by side examining with horselovers' eyes animals lately "requisitioned" from White Cossack prisoners. This forbearance in the first days of impact bore bountiful fruit. Second thoughts succeeded first impulses, and the two forces settled down in amity to the joint occupation.
On acquaintance both British and Indian troops learned to respect the hardy Yugo-Slavs who had fought so well, and who seemed able to operate a division on less transport and equipment than required by a single British battalion. Tito's forces (about one-quarter of the army were women) proved to be cheerful folk, good at games, and within the narrow range of their resources, invaryingly hospitable. They carried their drink well for the local wines were bodiless beside the wild plum brandy of their homeland. They were fond of music, men and women harmonizing in folk songs replete with immemorial Slavonic nostalgia. They saluted British officers with a punctiliousness which it is hoped that British other ranks reciprocated. These pleasant characteristics fortified the tendency to leave political questions to those who must settle them, and meanwhile to make the best of the impasse.
In pursuance of such resolve, Tenth Indian Division devoted itself to a series of "Jug" parties which did much to cement growing friendships and mutual appreciation. A single entertainment may be described as characteristic of a score of similar functions. To the east of the Montfalcone-Gorizia road 25th Indian Brigade moved into a solidly Yugo-Slav area. The craggy village which served as Brigade headquarters was crammed with Tito's troops. A house-warming seemed to be indicated so an invitation was extended to all Yugo-Slavs in the neighbourhood. They turned up in hundreds. At a buffet supper to the officers a Yugo-Slav commissar and a Gurkha subedar major baited each other in fluent and cheerful Italian and effectively laid the foundation for animated and amiable conversation. After supper Brigadier Arderne led out a woman adjutant, formidable of form but beaming, for the first dance. In a natural amphitheatre behind the village, hundreds of British, Indian and Yugo-Slav soldiers sat down together to al fresco entertainment. That greatest of cosmopolitans, Mickey Mouse, received the same belly laughs from all. Newsreels of the German prison camps were received by all with the same shocked silence. On the flood-lit floor of the amphitheatre, Durham Light Infantry produced a beauty ballet that was both vulgar and hilarious; the Yugo-Slavs rolled in mirth. Indian dances, culminating in the wild Khattak of the North-West Frontier, drew round upon round of applause. Everyone knew "Lily Marlene". At the end all streamed home together, comrades undivided.
The tension relaxed, agreement over Trieste was reached, and the mission of the Indians fulfilled. 43rd Gurkha Lorried Brigade was first to go. The New Zealanders regarded the hillmen as their own, and when the Gurkhas took ship they sailed from the midst of their great-hearted comrades. The bands of the New Zealand Division played each battalion aboard, and Sir Bernard Freyburg stood by the roadside, and later by the shipside, to give all godspeed. The Kiwis lined the streets as the columns swung past. "Good-bye, Johnny," they called, hands flung high---a soldier's farewell between men diverse in colour, creed and culture, yet who in service of the same cause had compiled records of skill and valour unmatched in the history of battle. Tenth Indian Division crossed Italy for a tour of duty in the Milan area. In December the Indian units took the roads to a southern port. Then came the wrench of parting, for the British formations, infantry, artillery and services, were left behind. Indian and Briton alike felt emptiness, for each in his heart knew the Indian Army to be an indissoluable partnership, in which the old concept of subject and dominant castes has disappeared, and in which all races are now brethren in arms.
Across the high seas, toward India, the ships bore many thousands of fighting men. They were not the raw recruits, the simple peasants, who had fared forth three, four, or five years before. They had travelled thousands of miles; they had seen diverse peoples: they spoke foreign languages; they had matched their manhood against the greatest aggressor and had not been found wanting. Now they were going home. Many wondered what home would mean. Proud of their service, keen and eager for the opportunities of to-morrow, it rested with India to fit them into service in a newer, better world.
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